Canberra’s Tug & Pull Between The Ideal & The Mediocre

Chicago pacifist Walter Griffin’s design for Australia’s new capital promised so much – even German beer gardens. But when war broke out, his ideas were shunned by planners and politicians alike, and a more prosaic city emerged.

 Field of dreams: Australia’s fledgling capital Canberra circa 1920, with official buildings already in place. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis
Field of dreams: Australia’s fledgling capital Canberra circa 1920, with official buildings already in place. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

In May 1912, Chicago landscape architect Walter Griffin won an international competition to design an unnamed capital of Australia. Overseas entrants had been given only maps, a cyclorama landscape print and – if they could access it – a plaster model of the site to work with.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the proposed designs suggested futuristic, high-density metropolises built around elaborate canals and weirs (third-placed Frenchman, Donat Alfred Agache, even pitched a formal European-style city through which raged a wild river – like the Seine in Paris).

Many of the international designs were simply impractical, however, suiting colder, wetter climates and more confined spaces. They lacked sympathy for the landscape.

Griffin – the conjurer and dreamer – was a lousy draughtsman. So his wife, world-renowned architectural artist Marion Mahony Griffin, rushed to produce a series of watercolour and photographic dye images of their dreamt capital.

In nine weeks they created a stunning composition: a city of hexagonal boulevards and streets joined by bush corridors, studded with monumental buildings and anchored by land and water axes. Its heart, where the axes met, was an artificial lake that would emerge with the damming of the Molonglo river to flood the plains.

Ridiculous expanse’: Canberra almost a century later. Photograph: Nature Connect/Corbis
Ridiculous expanse’: Canberra almost a century later. Photograph: Nature Connect/Corbis

It was a beautiful blueprint, resonant of the garden city movement that influenced the Griffins’ evolution as architects at the foot of the Chicagoan maestro Frank Lloyd Wright. But beyond Marion’s grey-green, brown and russet images, this low-rise, medium-density, monumental capital had an ideological foundation, reflecting Walter’s stated intent to design a city for a country of “bold democrats”.

After winning the competition, Griffin declared he’d “planned a city not like any other city in the world … an ideal city – a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future”.

A plan of Canberra from 1927. Illustration: Buyenlarge
A plan of Canberra from 1927. Illustration: Buyenlarge

Perhaps the greatest of many misconceptions about Canberra, however, is that it was actually built according to Griffin’s superb design.

As Paul Reid, author of Canberra Following Griffin: A Design History of Australia’s National Capital, points out: “Canberra’s citizens proudly claim Griffin as the designer of their city … The impression given is that modern Canberra is Griffin’s city, with a few changes necessitated by modern life, of which he would have approved. In fact the vitality of Griffin’s proposed urban terraces and monuments has been replaced by quiet suburbs on a serene landscape.”

Griffin had long been intrigued by the 1901 evolution into federation of this vast continent of disparate colonies of convicts, miners, stockmen and soldier settlers. He was thoroughly taken with the symbolism of the capital as explained by King O’Malley – an American who posed as a Canadian (as only the Commonwealth-born could serve in Australia’s parliament), and a shyster on many other fronts.

“We desire to have a city that will be the Gotham of Australia … [and] in a few years will rival London in size, Athens in art and Paris in beauty,” O’Malley said with typical hyperbole. “If an Australian can produce a design, it will be accepted; but we require the best we can get, whether it comes from Swede or Dane, from Quaker, Shaker or Holy Roller.”

At a March 1913 ceremony atop Kurrajong hill, overlooking the rabbit-plagued, sheep-studded blank canvas for the capital, the future city became “Canberra” – its etymology cradled in “Ngambri”, the name of the first people of the limestone plains. Officials laid a six-sided foundation stone as the intended base of a monolithic obelisk.

The Griffin Canberra was a testament to peace. But war would soon change all that.

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Canberra in the 1930s: the city’s design changed dramatically from Walter Griffin’s original plan. Photograph: Alamy
Canberra in the 1930s: the city’s design changed dramatically from Walter Griffin’s original plan. Photograph: Alamy

The Anglophile Australian planners overseeing the capital project were already hostile to elements of Griffin’s plan when he arrived in Australia to salvage it in May 1914. Then, barely a month later, came the spark of the first world war – the assassination in Sarajevo of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Australia obsequiously trailed Great Britain to war in August 1914.bartday-homemaker-2-008-336x280

From a population of some five million, 416,000 Australian men – about half of all those eligible – enlisted. Of the 331,000 deployed, some 60,000 were killed, about 155,000 wounded, and tens of thousands more psychologically and emotionally ruined.

The new federation’s peaceful optimism segued to sombre mourning for a generation of lost men, while the country remained bitterly divided on the rights and wrongs of the war.

White Australia’s mood had shifted. While the nation redefined itself with war’s legacy, well before the guns stopped in November 1918 the planners and politicians had rethought how the fledgling national capital ought to symbolise its nationhood.


The planners were contemptuous

The architectural anchors of the Griffins’ south-north land axis were the “capitol” on Kurrajong hill and the “casino” at the foot of Mount Ainslie, a steep, forested rise named after a mythologised plains pioneer who was actually a sadistic, alcoholic, lunatic Scot posing as a courageous Waterloo veteran.

The land axis dissected a vast triangle formed by Kings and Commonwealth Avenues with their cross-water bridges, and Constitution Avenue at right angles on the northern flank of the lake. The southern apex of the triangle would be dotted with monumental buildings, among them apartments and shops.

The future King George VI attends the opening of the federal parliament in Canberra in May 1927. Photograph: Popperfoto
The future King George VI attends the opening of the federal parliament in Canberra in May 1927.

The plan accommodated a series of communities, each in a triangular precinct of between 12 and 25 acres, mostly comprising terraces with front and back yards. The larger, higher blocks, linked by bush corridors, were for bigger freestanding houses. There would be plenty of space – but no isolated suburbia.

The capitol was intended to be the most symbolically democratic of the public buildings: a place, Griffin explained, for popular reception and ceremony – “or for housing archives and commemorating Australian achievements rather than for deliberation or counsel … representing the sentimental and spiritual head, if not the actual working mechanism of federation”.


Fatally nebulous in definition, it would nonetheless be – physically and metaphorically – above parliament and the houses for the prime minister and the governor general, so the people might watch over their head of state and chief executive.

Leading to the casino, meanwhile, Marion drew a vast, 600-ft wide and much longer park – a “midway pleasance” or playground of the city. The casino itself would be a place of leisure incorporating theatres, small restaurants featuring al fresco dining, stalls, children’s parks and a beer garden.

“In the early 1890s there were 30 German newspapers in Chicago and a number of German theatres, not to mention the beer gardens,” says Karl Fischer, a German planning academic and visiting fellow at the University of New South Wales. “The beer gardens were a model for Lloyd Wright’s 1913 Midway Gardens precinct on Chicago’s Lakefront, and also more than likely for the casino which Griffin proposed for the northern end of his midway pleasance.”

Canberra’s new Parliament House on Capital Hill was opened in 1988. Photograph: Lukas Coch/EPA
Canberra’s new Parliament House on Capital Hill was opened in 1988. Photograph: Lukas Coch/EPA

While O’Malley and others embraced the beauty and broad concept of the Griffin plan, Australian officials – and some politicians – never wanted any of this “continental-style”, medium density, communal life with outdoor eating – let alone such Germanic oddities as beer gardens. They wanted their bungalows on vast, private suburban blocks. Besides, O’Malley was teetotal and had ensured that so, too, was the infant capital.

As governments rose and fell repeatedly in the first decade and a half of federation, senior public servants overseeing the capital project were the mainstay. Most important were the intimidating surveyor, Charles Scrivener, Commonwealth works director, Percy Owen, New South Wales chief architect Walter Liberty Vernon and home affairs department secretary David Miller. Colonels Owen and Miller, former Boer war commanders, insisted on their military titles in peacetime; Vernon, commanding officer in the NSW Lancers, became a light horse regimental commander.bartday-discover-002-336x280

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War against Germany was brewing and the Griffins – avowed pacifists and Germanophiles, followers of eastern philosophy and mysticism – were an uneasy fit. Walter wore his hair long, and favoured soft collars and exuberant neckwear. Marion, five years older, exuded pre-Raphaelite mystique and composure. They looked and thought differently to the Australian political and public-service elite who were, as the war loomed then raged, ever more bound to Empire.

The planners were contemptuous of Griffin. Even before he arrived they’d begun building a small city south of the proposed lake (to which they were implacably opposed), starting with a power station in a place Griffin earmarked residential.

Griffin, once in Australia, agreed to redraw his plans to accommodate elements of the other designs favoured by government, after the crusty colonels had personally bastardised his design. But he was shunned.

Griffin stuck to his plan for a city straddling a lake; they continued to plan and build bits of their underwhelming, prosaic capital south of the Molonglo. Wartime austerity stalled work to a snail’s pace. Any saving was sought – including on the foundation stone obelisk. It is still missing.

 Protest on the lawns of Canberra’s Old Parliament House, January 2016. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP
Protest on the lawns of Canberra’s Old Parliament House, January 2016. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

In 1916, Australia’s official war correspondent Charles W Bean witnessed the horror of the western front. He resolved to establish a place in Australia where the relatives of the dead and missing could mourn and remember. It would be a military museum, an archive and a shrine.

Meanwhile, Griffin had been sidetracked into designing a grave for General William Bridges, the Gallipoli commander whose body was shipped home to Australia and buried on the hill at Canberra’s royal military college, Duntroon. Cognisant of the emotional potency of Bean’s idea and how war had re-shaped Australia’s disposition, Griffin suggested the Australian War Memorial complimented the essence of his capitol, and that it and Bridges’ grave might go atop Kurrajong hill.

Again they shouted him down. The capitol died on Marion’s drawings along with plans for medium-density living amid the monuments, lively boulevards and inter-linked, vibrant suburbs.

The war memorial, opened in 1941, today stands in place of Griffin’s casino. Marion’s midway pleasance is, conversely, a vast, empty (except on occasions such as Anzac day) windswept parade ground lined with monuments to battles, wars and military units. Constitution Avenue is a lifeless thoroughfare that is only now, along with other parts of inner Canberra, accommodating the medium-density vision Griffin articulated a century ago.

Stand atop Mount Ainslie and you’ll see some of the original Griffin plan, its oblique geometry like the veins of maple leaf held to the sun. The city is finally attaining the Griffins’ intended vibrancy, but its ridiculous expanse – more than 800 square kilometres for a population not yet 400,000-strong – is a stage for too many dormitory suburbs of big, energy-hungry houses.

Naturally Canberra scarred the Griffins. Marion was especially embittered, as evidenced by her disjointed autobiography, The Magic of America. She described Walter’s time in Canberra (ending when prime minister Billy Hughes effectively sacked him in 1920 as “director of design and construction”) as “a perpetual battle one might say, against an Empire … continual warfare. The one word that describes the methods here (in Australia) is inefficiency, and the one that describes the ideal is mediocrity.”

The couple lived, until Walter’s death in India aged 61, in Castlecrag – the Sydney suburb they had designed, and where municipal trouble resonated with their battle against Canberra officials.

But there is a more melancholy postscript. Only one of the structures that the pacifist Walter Griffin designed for Canberra was ever actually built on its intended site. And that is the grave for the general, Bridges, upon that hill at Duntroon.


This feature originally appeared in The Guardian.





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